Columbia Pictures via Everett Collection
Treading water at the very surface of RoboCop, there is an idea. A dense concept, ready and willing to provide no dearth of dissection for any eager student of philosophy, psychology, political science, physics — hell, any of the Ps. To simplify the idea on hand: What separates man from machine? It's a question that is not just teased by the basic premise of José Padilha's remake of the 1987 sci-fi staple, but asked outright by many of its main characters. And then never really worried about again.
We have principal parties on both sides of the ethical quandary that would place the security of our crime-ridden cities in the hands of automatons. Samuel L. Jackson plays a spitfire Bill O'Reilly who wonders why America hasn't lined its streets with high-efficiency officer droids. Zach Grenier, as a moralistic senator, gobbles his way through an opposition to the Pro-boCop movement. We hear lecture after lecture from pundits, politicians, business moguls (a money-hungry Michael Keaton heads the nefarious OmniCorp...) and scientists (...while his top doc Gary Oldman questions the nature of his assignments while poking at patients' brains and spouting diatribes about "free will"), all working their hardest to lay thematic groundwork. Each character insists that we're watching a movie about the distinction between human and artificial intelligence. That even with an active brain, no robot can understand what it means to have a heart. But when Prof. Oldman tempers his hysterical squawking and Samuel L. Hannity rolls his closing credits, we don't see these ideas taking life.
In earnest, the struggle of rehabilitated police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) — nearly killed in the line of duty and turned thereafter into OmniCorp's prototype RoboCop — doesn't seem to enlist any of the questions that his aggravated peers have been asking. Murphy is transformed not just physically, but mentally — robbed of his decision-making ability and depleted of emotional brain chemicals — effectively losing himself in the process. But the journey we see take hold of Murphy is not one to reclaim his soul, although the movie touts it as such. It's really just one to become a better robot.
Columbia Pictures via Everett Collection
Meanwhile, RoboCop lays down its motives, and hard: Murphy's wife and son (Abbie Cornish and a puckish young John Paul Ruttan) lament the loss of Alex, condemning his dehumanization at the hands of Raymond Sellars' (Keaton) capitalistic experiments, and sobbing out some torrential pathos so you know just how deep this company is digging. Weaselly stooges (Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, and Jackie Earl Haley) line the OmniCorp roster with comical wickedness. Overseas, killer combat bots take down peaceful villages, unable to work empathetic judgment into their decision to destroy all deemed as "threats." And at the top, figures of power and money like Sellars and Pat Novak (Jackson) speak the loudest and harshest, literally justifying their agenda with a call for all naysayers to "stop whining." Clearly, RoboCop has something to say.
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And when it's devoted to its outrage, RoboCop is terrifically charming. The buzzing political world is just a tiny step closer to ridiculous than our own; the pitch meetings at OmniCorp are fun enough to provoke a ditching of all the material outside of the company walls. And one particular reference to The Wizard of Oz shows that the movie isn't above having fun with its admittedly silly premise. But it loses its magic when it steps away from goofy gimmicks and satirical monologues and heads back into the story. We don't see enough of Murphy grappling with the complicated balance between his conflicting organic and synthetic selves. In fact, we don't see enough "story" in Murphy at all. First, he's a dad and a cop. Then, he's a RoboCop. But can he also be a RoboDad? With all of its ranting and raving about the question, the film doesn't seem to concerned with actually figuring out the answer.
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Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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Beneath the glossy sheen of Zac Efron there exists the makings of quite a fine actor glimpses of which were seen in both the blockbuster comedy 17 Again and the indie drama Me and Orson Welles. His transition out of the Disney-fied teen-dream world and into more adult-oriented projects is a gradual uneasy one as is evidenced by his latest film the metaphysical drama Charlie St. Cloud which finds him perched squarely in between the two camps. Efron it appears is in that awkward stage.
In Charlie St. Cloud Efron plays the title character a carefree college-bound sailing star whose bright future is torpedoed when an awful auto wreck takes the life of his beloved kid brother Sam (Charlie Tahan). Charlie at the wheel of the car at the time of the crash briefly dies himself only to be wrested from a flatline by a particularly stubborn and spiritual EMT (Ray Liotta).
Years later Charlie’s body has made a full recovery but his mind remains plagued by some nasty after-effects of the tragedy. He’s given up sailing ditched his college plans gotten a job at a cemetery and taken up the habit of holding regular conversations with dead people — specifically his brother Sam with whom he meets daily in a forest clearing to play catch. Usually such mental deterioration coincides fairly closely with physical deterioration which is why you don’t encounter a lot of well-groomed paranoid schizophrenics on skid row. But Charlie has kept up with his workout and grooming regimens earning a reputation among the residents of his sleepy Pacific Northwest town as a sort of beautiful nutcase.
Unable to escape his all-consuming grief Charlie seems doomed to retreat further into isolation and despair until salvation arrives wrapped in a cardigan: Tess (Amanda Crew) a feisty pro sailor and no stranger to tragedy herself can see beyond Charlie’s unhinged persona to the sensitive troubled and irresistibly hot man that lies beneath. As their relationship deepens Charlie is increasingly torn between his imaginary friends and his real-life love.
It’s a noble aim giving tweens questions deeper than just “Edward or Jacob?” to contemplate and Charlie St. Cloud’s principal message “life is for living ” is a worthwhile one. But director Burr Steers having learned from the success of 17 Again clearly knows where his bread is buttered and so he takes care to sate the demands of Efron’s screeching fanbase by stocking the film with ample glowing shots of his star lovingly lit and clad invariably in a light blue solid color shirt and emoting against a picturesque coastal landscape. (Lest you think I'm exaggerating check out this studio-supplied promo clip featuring an interview with a shirtless Efron.) The awkward mix of existential drama and Abercrombie & Fitch commercial combined with a healthy dose of loopy Sixth Sense-esque supernatural shenanigans tossed in toward the end makes for an experience only the most fawning of Efron’s fans could enjoy.
‘Twas the night before Christmas and all...hell is about to break loose! It starts when a snowstorm grounds all planes at Chicago’s fictional Hoover International Airport. Nobody’s happy to be potentially spending Xmas at an airport but least of all are the Davenport siblings Spencer (Dyllan Christopher) and his little sis Katherine (Dominique Saldana) as well as airport security boss Oliver (Lewis Black). The two kids are escorted to the airport’s “Unaccompanied Minors Lounge ” where kids run wild and terrorize pushover Zach Van Bourke (Wilmer Valderrama) who acts as chief airport babysitter. One look at the madness is all it takes for Spencer and Katherine to bust out along with fellow kiddie anarchists Charlie (Tyler James Williams) Timothy (Brett Kelly) Donna (Quinn Shephard) and Grace (Gina Mantegna). They embark on a pratfall-heavy game of cat and mouse with Oliver who is the Grinch to their collective Santa Clause as they try and salvage Christmas--and their families. Unaccompanied Minors makes some odd but admirable choices when it comes to the cast with virtually every single actor attempting a “Frat Pack” mutiny--Daily Show mainstay Black is joined by “correspondent” Rob Corddry as the Davenports’ Hummer-hating dad not to mention parts from The Office’s B.J. Novak and Mindy Kaling Arrested Development’s Tony Hale and Jessica Walter SNL’s Rob Riggle and Kristen Wiig Paget Brewster David Koechner and a rare Kids in the friggin’ Hall (Kevin McDonald Bruce McCulloch and Mark McKinney) sighting. But the “Who’s that?” cameos aside the screen time is hogged by Black Valderrama and the children. Black the notoriously vulgar curmudgeon of a comedian shows great range and skill by dulling his shtick down but not so much that the kids watching won’t crack up while Valderrama’s performance is the same as his role--that of a bumbling easily overmatched lackey. With all the proverbial child actors in the mix it can seem a little Star Search-y but Williams (Everybody Hates Chris) steals most scenes with his amazing overall talent while Mantegna (Joe’s daughter) fares well too. Kelly (the bullied kid in Bad Santa) is exploited for his physicality and Christopher will likely go on to be a great actor even if he seems too seasoned at such a young age. The reason for the off-the-beaten-path cast is simple: director Paul Feig. The occasional actor has in the past directed episodes of The Office and the late Arrested Development Undeclared and Freaks and Geeks. It also might explain why he fell for a script--by Jacob Meszaros and Mya Stark--that takes a few stabs at grown-up comedy (i.e. Corddry’s character has a car that runs on vegetable oil). Such jokes will be lost on the exclusively preadolescent audience but almost all else will reel them in. Feig also seems adept at making the oft-unfunny (physical pratfalls) somewhat funny and he does so with little mention of bodily functions. Of course he stays true to the formula but all kid flicks are the ultimate exercises in contrivance--Feig just chooses to treat the viewers like kids instead of idiots.
Four girlfriends head into their near-40s and wonder if they'd even be friends if they met today. Frannie (Joan Cusack) is rich and happily married trying to decide how to give away $2 million. Christine (Catherine Keener) is fighting with her co-screenwriting partner/husband (Jason Isaacs) about an addition to their house and Jane (Frances McDormand) is a successful fashion designer who won't wash her hair--and has a husband (Simon McBurney) everyone thinks is gay. The youngest of the friends is Olivia (Jennifer Aniston) who's single a pothead and a maid who goes through people's drawers. The other three worry about Olivia and set her up with handsome trainer (Scott Caan) but he ends up treating her as bad as all her past boyfriends. It isn’t until she meets Marty (Bob Stephenson) an average-Joe living in a messy apartment does she finally find some harmony. No Aniston isn't doing Rachel from Friends here although it may look like that at first. Rachel would never take a vibrator out of a stranger's drawer and well you know. More the actress revisits her Good Girl character adding some additional more hard-hitting layers. Some of the fights she has with Caan sound like they could have come right out of a spat she may have had with Brad Pitt. Oscar-winner McDormand is once again a wonder as a woman so filled with angst and anger she has no idea the effect she has on those around her. Keener too steps up as the screenwriter struggling with a failing marriage. In fact all the relationships these women have hit home mostly because this odd collection of stellar actresses seem to have a genuine and natural affinity for one another. Writer/director Nicole Holofcener has captured a world of cross-economic friendships that may seem awkward but comes across as realistic. She has cast her alter-ego Keener in all three of her films including Walking & Talking and Lovely & Amazing. This time Keener is a bit more hard-edged and frustrated and yet excruciatingly funny when she admits "I don't get SpongeBob." Holofcener has painted the men into the background very subtly but ultimately are unimportant to the friendships anyway. Some of the best moments are when the group is together chatting and talking over each other and that's why it's going to be unfairly compared to Sex and the City--girlfriends do get together in other cities too. Friends with Money is just an enjoyable slice-of-life for couples of any kind.